In an exclusive interview with Karen News, the Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO)—an NGO which represents female refugees on the Thai-Burma border—slammed the recent cuts in humanitarian aid and other forms of assistance to refugees on the border. The KWO Secretary’s comments follow a host of similar statements by other NGO’s condemning the funding cuts by international donors.
“Our refugee community feels it is under pressure to return to Burma. If there is not enough food, not enough health services and not enough shelter [then] sensible people will feel the need to move and go to another place where they find these things. That is just common sense,” KWO Secretary Naw K’nyaw Paw told Karen News.
The KWO is a community-based organization of Karen women who facilitate development and provide relief services in refugee camps on the border. The organization also provides similar services to internally displaced persons inside Burma. In total, KWO says it has a membership base of over 49,000 Karen women.
“As the situation in Burma is not yet ready or safe for refugees to return – we expect to see lots of people trying to find other places to go. That might be within Thailand. This again places us in danger, as we are liable to be arrested and deported [since refugees aren’t permitted to live or work outside the camp area],” said Naw K’nyaw Paw, adding that refugees are now struggling to feed their families because funding reductions have led to rationing of essential items such as rice, and that families now have little choice but to…consider their options, despite the lack of viable alternatives.”
“Refugees may also decide to try to return to places in Burma that are not yet safe and this also puts them in grave danger. We have also heard NGO’s and donors talking about a thing they call ‘incentivizing return.’ This seems to us to be a fancy new jargon for forced repatriation,” said Naw K’nyaw Paw.
The KWO’s concerns come as a growing number of internationally-based Burma human rights NGO’s have condemned the recent aid cuts to refugees. In a joint statement released two weeks ago, the European Burma Network—which represents 15 Burma-focused human rights NGO’s in Europe, including the European Karen Network, Burma Campaign UK, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—said that the cuts endangered the lives of refugees.
“By using cuts in aid to try to force refugees back to Burma, donors such as the European Union are putting refugees at risk of being subject to human rights abuses, landmines, and living in extreme poverty,” the network said.
Rice rations in the refugee camps have been cut by The Border Consortium (TBC)—a coalition of NGO’s that has administered aid to the camps for over two decades—as part of its “staged assistance plan.” The latest funding cut in December resulted in rice rations being cut for refugee households classified as “self-reliant,” whereas households classified as “standard,” “vulnerable,” or “most vulnerable” will not have their rice rations reduced.
TBC introduced its “staged assistance plan” for rice rations in order to direct more resources from its dwindling budget towards “livelihood programs,” which are designed to increase the self-sufficiency of refugees. However, the European Burma Network’s recent statement criticized TBC’s “livelihood programs,” claiming there isn’t enough funding for the programs to be effective.
The statement said “These programs are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programs. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programs should be additional to, rather than instead of, providing essentials for survival.”
During her interview with Karen News, KWO Secretary Naw K’nyaw Paw said she has been overwhelmed with reports of refugees finding it difficult to cope with the ration cuts.
“We have received many reports from many women and men about the problems they are facing because of the cuts in rations and other service. If you cut an adult rice ration from 15 kilos per month to 8 kilos per month, [as] TBC has had to do in December 2013, you would expect to see problems emerging. The rations in the past were enough to keep people alive. Now they are not – assistance for bamboo and wood for our houses has also been drastically cut, as have support for health and education services. All of this throws a bigger burden onto families to provide for themselves.”
The KWO has found that funding cuts have put pressure on refugees to find work outside the camps in order to survive, meaning that children and young people are left at home alone inside the camps without proper parental supervision. Naw K’nyaw Paw also expressed concern that refugees seeking work outside the camp are vulnerable to economic exploitation and abuse, citing the recent murder of two refugees by their Thai employer.
“Those who leave [the camps] to work are open to abuse by employers. They are not protected by Thai laws, so they can be easily exploited. In a recent case, certainly an extreme case, a refugee couple from Mae La camp worked for three months for a corn farmer not far from Mae La camp. When they asked to be paid he killed them both with an axe in front of their two children. [The employer] fled the scene and has not been found.”
Underscoring the dilemma faced by refugees on the border, Naw K’nyaw Paw also listed some of the problems confronting people who are considering going back to Karen State instead of remaining in Thailand.
“Landmines; a much increased Burmese army presence near Karen villages; not enough food and services for the locals (let alone many new refugees); lack of livelihood opportunities; not full and proper ceasefire agreements. [Furthermore,] many new big economic development projects are swarming into Karen state [and] with no proper regulations to control what they do and how they do it, we see this as another form of abuse of our people and of our land.”
Similarly, the European Burma Network noted that refugees still can’t return to Burma safely because issues such as the return of confiscated land; the de-militarization of eastern Burma; and the clearance of landmines have not been solved yet. In its statement, the network also said that “Many refugees want to return to their home villages, not be forced into special economic zones as the Burmese government proposes. They don’t want to be [used as] cheap labor in factories.”
Refugees have experienced a series of cuts to their rations and services in the camps over the last two years. The latest funding cut, implemented in December 2013, saw rice rations provided to “self-reliant” households reduced from 12kg per month to 8kg at Umphiem and Mae La, two of the largest camps which collectively house 56,000 refugees. At other refugee camps, TBC reduced the rice rations of “self-reliant” households to 10kg per month. However, rice rations for all households at Ban Don Yang camp will remain at 2013 levels.
TBC’s latest figures from March this year noted that 119,000 refugees were currently living in the nine refugee camps located along the Thai-Burma border— 10,000 less than in March 2013. Yet TBC has denied that its programs were designed to force refugees back into Burma, implying that the reduction in refugee numbers is actually attributable to refugees moving to other parts of Thailand—especially in view of the risks and dangers associated with returning to Burma.
“TBC wishes to emphasize that these changes are in no way intended to encourage refugees to return to Burma/Myanmar prematurely. TBC, The Union Government of the Republic of Myanmar, the Royal Thai Government, and TBC’s international partners all agree that conditions do not yet exist for the organized return of refugees,” a spokesman from TBC said in an email to Karen News after the most recent ration cuts.